We need social workers — not Facebook — to better understand our patients' health

  • Facebook wanted to work with hospitals to figure out how their patients are faring outside of the medical setting.
  • Hospitals would be better off using their existing resources — case managers and social workers — to get this information.
  • There is a role that technology can play, but this isn't it, said Dan Gebremedhin, a health-tech investor and doctor.
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For a year, according to a CNBC report, Facebook developed a plan to work with hospitalsto scrape an individual's social interactions from their profile to identify whether they lack social supports or have other needs when they get discharged from the hospital.

As a doctor and health-tech investor, I'd like to propose an alternative approach: Try talking to a patient.

Case managers and social workers already play a vitally important role, which has been historically under-appreciated and under-recognized in both the health and tech industries.

These individuals are already in regular contact with patients, usually in a clinic or hospital setting, to assess their social determinant needs (a fancy term for things like housing, transportation, financial, social support) and deploy resources to fill these gaps.

The role of technology

That said, there are ways that the latest technology can help. And there's a category of emerging start-ups doing it right.

Emerging health-tech companies like CityBlock and BehaveCare are focusing on vulnerable populations who have social determinant needs, and they understand the importance of the real humans who already work with them. Instead of scraping data, they are making the case manager and social worker more effective by deploying teams into communities and engaging patients where they reside to assess these needs and provide solutions.

Others like Nuna Health are building sophisticated data graphs that pull in information from patients' insurance claims as well as clinical data and other socio-economic information to develop a rich picture of a patient's needs.

Healthify, Aunt Bertha, and Unite Us are another group of start-ups solely focused on assessing and mapping community benefit organizations and then connecting eligible patients to these social determinant resources. Again, real humans are involved.

Finally, organizations focused on lower-income Medicaid populations such as Centene and UnitedHealthCare have long managed the field of social determinant benefits, which fall under the category of "Long Term Support Services." These companies have well-oiled machinery, albeit outdated, that assess and deploy social determinant needs and services in a value-based care manner.

The power of technology to increase convenience, reduce cost, and improve patient outcomes is undeniable.

More involvement in patient's lives

In the new world of health care, which is starting to reward care providers for keeping a patient healthy rather than for pricey tests and procedures, there's a trend towards more direct involvement in patients' lives.

But that doesn't mean passive scraping of social media to learn about a patient's most basic needs.

In my view, we must use the new technologies to improve care and communication with patients, and not replace it. We should use intelligent analytics tools to augment our existing clinical models and do more for patients, not less. We need to deepen our connection with patients, not take shortcuts by approximating information from readily available information sources with questionable validity and efficacy that may violate a patient's privacy.

At best, Facebook's recent attempts are misguided or misunderstood and need to be further honed in close collaboration with leading healthcare organizations. At worst, these actions are subversive: I'm concerned that a pitch to "help patients" will instead serve as a Trojan horse to gain access to millions of patients' medical data for monetization purposes.

In either case, health-care organizations should not waver in embracing technology to dramatically improve their operations. They should engage, inform, and educate their patients on the novel use cases of data, so we can build the kind of system we want and so desperately need.

Dan Gebremedhin, MD is a principal at Flare Capital Partners, specializing in health-technology. He and the firm have no financial interests in the companies mentioned.